Billy Ray had met Kelly on the casino floor of Caesar’s Palace eight years ago. It was the old story: he was working as a Blackjack dealer, she was a cocktail waitress. She was 19 at the time and as cute as a bug’s ear. Fresh out of Kentucky, straight to Vegas, do not pass Go. Every dealer in there was interested, but he had a secret weapon: tequila. He had her doing slammers with him on their first date. She’d moved into his trailer the following day.
It hadn’t worked out, obviously. He blamed it on the “personality change” that occurred when Billy Ray Jr. arrived. One minute she was a fun-loving party girl, the next she was a sour-faced scold. And about 90 pounds heavier! It was as if she’d aged 20 years in one night. Which, when you come to think of it, made her the same age as him -- but they weren’t in the same place, emotionally. She wanted to settle down and she was always on at him to become a police officer because of the benefits. He never told her about the DUI conviction that ruled out a job in law enforcement. “Amicable” would not be the word to describe their separation. She kicked him out when he rolled in drunk one night three years ago. It didn’t help that he smelled of cheap perfume. He blamed it on the pressure of suddenly having a family to support. He had to give up the trailer -- his own trailer, goddammit! -- and start sleeping on his boat. He still had a job as a Blackjack dealer -- at the Flamingo -- but he had to commute an hour each day to Lake Mead where he kept the boat.
It was Billy Ray Jr.’s fifth birthday and Kelly had agreed to let him stay with his father for the weekend. Up until now, he’d only ever taken his son out on day trips, so this was a pretty big deal. Kelly knew there was no point in insisting that Billy Ray didn’t take the boat out because he’d just do it anyway. In any case, the boy wanted to go out on the boat. He’d been going on about it for long enough.
It was hot by the time Billy Ray Jr pulled up at Colville Bay Marina with his son beside him in the pick-up. This was real heat, too -- over a hundred degrees and it was only 9.30am. It was going to get hotter. Lake Mead had been created when the Reclamation Bureau opened the Hoover Dam back in 1936 and it looked like what it was: an artificial lake in the middle of a desert.
Billy Ray’s boat was not some fancy, ocean-going yacht. She looked more like a floating trailer home: an oblong box that contained a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchenette. She was driven by two engines, one in each pontoon, and she was built when gas was cheap and plentiful. When he’d bought her in 1982 it had cost him less than a hundred dollars to fill her up. Now it was around $800.
It may have been a leaky old barge, but Billy Ray Jr. didn’t know that. He ran around, pulling stuff out of closets, pressing every button he could. He sat up behind the wheel and Billy Ray felt one of those surges of emotion that almost knock you off your feet. He loved the boy, that was for sure. He and Kelly had that in common at least.
He decided to take the boat over to Sandy Cove, a swimming beach he knew of about a mile from the Marina. On the way, he drank a little bourbon just to take the edge off. So what if it wasn’t even 10am yet? Being with the boy could be stressful -- he asked so many questions, God bless him.
Sandy Cove looked different from how he remembered it. What should have been a beach looked kind of messy, like someone had scattered dirt all over it. Had there been a mudslide since he was last here?
“Junior?” said Billy Ray. “You wanna help me tie up the boat?”
“Don’t you worry. There ain’t nothing to it. You just find a big old rock and wrap this rope around it.”
He handed him one of the two bowlines, showed him how to tie a knot and then told him to jump off the front on to the beach. Billy Ray felt drunker than he’d expected, but it wasn’t nothing he couldn’t handle.
Then a weird thing happened. Billy Ray Jr. hit the ground and just sort of kept on going. It wasn’t sand, but mud. Billy Ray began to laugh -- it looked pretty funny -- and told his son to haul his ass out of there and get back on the boat. But Billy Ray Jr. couldn’t seem to get his legs out. When he tried pushing down with his hands to get some leverage his hands just sank into the mud.
Billy Ray’s laughter died in his throat. What if the boy didn’t stop sinking? He felt a sudden spurt of panic that quickly spread to the rest of his body. The warm, fuzzy feeling he’d had from the bourbon seemed to curdle and turn sour.
“Don’t worry, son. I’ll get you out of there.”
His first impulse was to jump overboard and try and pull him out, but what if he sank himself? Then they’d both be up the creek. There had to be an alternative.
“Okay, Billy Ray, this is what I want you to do. Take that rope and fasten it round your waist real tight using that knot I just showed you. Daddy’s gonna pull you out of there.”
Billy Ray Jr. looped the rope under his arms and then tied what looked like a pretty good knot. By now he was in it up to his waist.
Billy Ray pulled the rope until it was taut. It seemed okay.
“Grip the front of the rope with both hands, Junior -- and don’t let go, okay?”
Billy Ray heaved, but it was no good. It had the effect of pulling the boy forward so his top half was almost spreadeagled across the mud, but his bottom half remained stuck. He tried again, but still the boy wouldn’t move.
“Hang on, son. I’m gonna try something else.”
He let the rope go slack, dashed back into the cabin and put both engines into reverse. If he wasn’t strong enough to pull the boy out, the boat sure as hell would be. He tried to slow it down just before the rope became taught again, but he mistimed it and it jerked against the boy’s body, causing him to cry out. The boat bucked against the rope, swinging from side to side, and Billy Ray increased the power. Both engines were now at full capacity.
Billy Ray Jr started howling out in pain, but he managed to keep hold of the rope. Come on, thought his father. Just a few more seconds. Sure enough, the boat started to inch backwards and, for a second, it looked as though it might work. But then Billy Ray noticed that the rope was slipping through his son’s fingers. Within moments, the loop was up and over his shoulders and the boy let go, causing the boat to shoot backwards in the water. Billy Ray stumbled forward and hit his head on the steering wheel.
By the time he got the boat back into the cove all he could see of Billy Ray Jr. was his head, tilted backwards so his mouth was just out of the mud. He had a minute, maybe two, and then his son would be gone.
He tried to fight the rising tide of panic, but all he could hear in his head were Kelly’s recriminations. This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been drinking, you stupid asshole. What kind of man are you? YOU KILLED YOUR OWN SON. He realized that this wasn’t Kelly’s voice, but the voice of his own conscience. This episode would be the final proof that he was a complete zero as a human being. Indeed, everything seemed to be leading up to this point: It was a test -- the ultimate test -- and he’d flunked it. He’d gone and killed the only thing in his life he’d ever loved. He felt himself giving into despair, beginning to feel all the things he’d feel once his son was gone.
“Dad,” croaked the boy, his chin beginning to disappear beneath the mud. “Help me, dad.”
Billy Ray snatched the rope up out of the water, wrapped it round his waist half-a-dozen times, and then tied it as tight as he could. He glanced over at his son -- only the tip of his nose was visible. He ran back into the cabin, slammed both engines into reverse, then ran back out and leapt over the side. For a second he was in the air, his legs dangling beneath him, then he was in the mud up to his waist. By now, Billy Ray Jr had vanished completely, and his father tried to feel around in the mud where he thought he’d been. He looked behind him -- the boat was plowing backwards through the water and he could see the rope being gathered up. He only had a couple of seconds.
Then he felt an arm. He plunged forward through the mud, fighting as hard as he could to get closer to him, all the while sinking further and further. He managed to get one arm round the boy’s waist, then another, and then link his fingers behind his back. He shut his eyes and bear-hugged him as hard as he could, bracing himself for the sharp tug.
It was way more painful that he’d anticipated -- he thought he was going to be sliced in two -- but the jolt was enough. He flew out of the mud, clutching his son to his body, like a cork popping out of a champagne bottle. They bounced once and then hit the water, plunging down and then resurfacing. Now Billy Ray had a second problem: How to keep his son’s head above water until the boat came to a halt. Lake Mead was about half a mile wide at this point and it would be a good ten minutes before they reached the other side. Yet he couldn’t simply let Billy Ray Jr. go. The boy couldn’t swim.
He managed to twist round until he was on his back, maneuvering his son so he was resting on his stomach. By leaning forward as best he could, trying to force his head up, he was able to keep his mouth and nose out of the water. His son had been unconscious when he pulled him out of the mud, but the spray of the water against his face brought him round. He looked up at his father and Billy Ray tried to give him a reassuring smile.
“It’s okay, son. We’re gonna make it.”
Just then, the boat’s engines sputtered and stopped. She’d run out of gas! Billy Ray couldn’t help smiling. He’d forgotten to fill her up before they set off and for once his incompetence had worked to his advantage. He kicked his way back to the boat with Billy Ray Jr. still lying on his stomach and then managed to clamber up the little ladder at the stern, hoisting his son up behind him. They both collapsed on the deck, exhausted.
“Jesus, Billy Ray. For a second there, I thought I’d lost you.”
His son scrambled over and hugged him.
“I knew you’d think of something, dad.”
Tears welled up in Billy Ray’s eyes.
“That’s right son,” he said, biting his lip. “Daddy’ll never let anything happen to you.”